Iraq has seen a significant decline in active conflict and improved security conditions in the years following the defeat of the Islamic State (IS). During the emergency humanitarian response to large-scale displacement due to the IS offensive and military operations to reclaim IS occupied territory (2014-2017), third party monitoring (TPM) was used as a project verification tool, as it is often used where access is limited and programs are managed remotely. Now that security and access are improving and international funding mechanisms are shifting, is there still use for TPM in Iraq? Is TPM relevant in a post-conflict environment?
In 2018, Proximity spoke with over 30 representatives of humanitarian and development agencies that were operating in Iraq to discuss with them concerns around access, accountability and monitoring in a reduced conflict environment. This post will explore the question around the use and need for TPM in the Iraq context and suggest points of consideration for those involved in either the provision or commissioning of TPM services.
In 2018, UN agencies and NGOs in Iraq began factoring improved security into their operational strategies, causing some to reconsider their contracts with TPM actors. For example, one UN agency noted that in 2017, it had employed 120 third party monitors but that the figure had decreased to 57 in 2018 due to improved access. This particular agency had recently undertaken yet another review process to determine whether to further decrease the number of monitors.
At the same time, although humanitarian and development agencies in Iraq largely agree that their access has improved alongside the diminishing armed conflict, many continue to struggle with other access constraints. These include lengthy and opaque bureaucratic procedures for travel imposed by the government or armed actors in certain areas, poor road conditions, and a dearth of field-based guesthouses. One UN official described the procedures behind conducting operations in Sinjar, a city located about 200 kilometers west of Erbil: “It take three hours to get to Sinjar from Erbil, often due to long checkpoints and the poor quality of the roads. Since we can’t spend the night there, then it takes 3 hours to get back. Sometimes there’s access, but it’s not stable”.
It is likely that the response coordination will remain heavily concentrated in the existing Baghdad and Erbil hubs for the time being, a situation that presents its own unique set of access concerns, and which continues to drive demand for TPM and additional oversight mechanisms. One NGO Country Coordinator put it this way: “The concept of ‘hard-to-reach’ is no longer related to security; it’s related to operational expense.” This suggests the emergence of a trade-off between allocating resources to hiring monitors out of convenience versus making investments in far-flung field offices to truly increase access. If funding for the Iraq emergency response decreases as expected in the coming years, it is possible that TPM arrangements may still remain the more attractive option of the two.
There is currently significant debate about the best way to navigate Iraq’s transition out emergency response and how best to continue ensuring organizational accountability during this period. During this transition, it is important to remember that because the Iraq crisis, along with other modern humanitarian crises, are increasingly protracted in nature the trajectories of humanitarian and development responses are non-linear. Development actors have been active in Iraq for decades, provided assistance throughout the IS conflict, and are still at work today in parallel with and in coordination with humanitarian actors. However, as funding for emergency response becomes increasingly scarce and as security and access improve, it will likely mean that TPM for the purpose of increased verification measures in remote access environments will continue to decrease, albeit slowly and only to be replaced by different transparency concerns.
Iraq is likely to see continued assistance efforts in the post-conflict phase, namely reconstruction. Reconstruction and development projects will usher in a new set of concerns around oversight and accountability, and TPM projects can still serve as powerful accountability mechanisms in this regard and potentially serve as a measure to build trust between local communities and development agencies. According to respondents in other research Proximity conducted in Iraq in 2018, such as its independent research on the impact of increased assistance to minorities in the Ninewa Plains, there is significant mistrust and suspicion of humanitarian and development agents involved in reconstruction.
Some of these concerns stem from communities struggling to understand how projects are implemented while agencies fail to adequately understand the new socioeconomic realities of post-conflict environments. Because Iraq is a country with longstanding and widespread corruption concerns, it is logical for communities to write off activities and behavior they might not understand as corruption. For this reason, independently monitored reconstruction projects in the “nexus” phase where such projects are monitored by members of the affected communities would not only verify that projects are unfurling according to plan, but also build communication channels and trust between the incoming development actors and affected communities.
It is true that TPM in a “traditional” sense – risk transfer and increased access – is fading. However, there is arguably value in maintaining TPM programs or in developing more creative research/TPM hybrid projects that can address key programmatic concerns such as corruption or provide additional oversight for projects in logistically remote locations. TPM actors should remain part of the conversation on how the “nexus” in Iraq can be approached in a way that ensures that a program’s bases are still covered in terms of access and verification, and also as a way to improve trust between agencies and communities at a time when communities are worried about exploitation and corruption.